Let’s talk about the Jones Act — all eight of them

Artwork by Stephanie Mahoney

You thought you knew what the Jones Act was, right? 

Well, think again. Turns out, there are at least eight separate federal Jones Acts. 

The Jones Act we discuss most at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii is the one that costs Hawaii residents more than $1 billion each year.1 

Also known as Section 27 of the federal Merchant Marine Act of 1920, it’s a cabotage law that requires ships carrying merchandise between U.S. ports to be U.S.-built and flagged and 75% owned and crewed by Americans.2 

Originally, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 itself was known as the Jones Act, since it was sponsored by U.S. Sen. Wesley Jones of Washington.3 But that body of maritime laws has been amended and litigated so many times over the past 101 years that these days the maritime-related usage of “the Jones Act” most commonly is applied to the section dealing with cabotage.4 

Some in the media still confuse Section 27 with the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 overall.5 

Compounding the confusion is that Section 33 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 is also still referred to as the Jones Act. It deals with seaman’s rights, and “gives seamen who were injured in the course of their employment the right to sue their employer for negligence damages.”6

Section 27 and Section 33 are often conflated in discussions about the Jones Act. Opponents of Jones Act reform often argue against changing or eliminating Section 27, having to do with cabotage, because they believe it would change Section 33, the seafarer’s rights section of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920.

For example, William Samuel, government affairs director for the AFL-CIO, stated in his opposition to Jones Act reform after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico: “Since the Jones Act ensures that our labor laws protect maritime employees, repealing the act would pave the way for foreign companies to replace domestic crews with lower-paid workers lacking basic labor protections.”7

Contrary to Samuel’s argument, the discussion concerning Puerto Rico was not about the seaman’s rights Jones Act; rather it was about the cabotage Jones Act.

There are other “Jones Acts” as well.

The namesake of the cabotage Jones Act, Sen. Jones of Washington, had another bill named after him. This co-called Jones Law dealt with Prohibition, of which Jones was a supporter. 

Otherwise called the Increased Penalties Act, this 1929 law came into force as politicians and the American public were increasingly realizing that attempts to ban alcohol consumption had failed. This so-called Jones Law attempted to strengthen Prohibition and deter bootlegging by enforcing harsher penalties.8

This did not quite pan out. The year it was passed, former U.S. Attorney General George Wickersham stated that the law “probably will defeat itself.”9 Prohibition’s eventual demise proved Wickersham right. 

Then there’s the Jones-Shafroth Act, usually just called the Jones Act. This one muddies the waters whenever Puerto Rico and the “Jones Act” are mentioned together. This law, passed in 1917, restructured Puerto Rico’s government and gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship.10

Unlike the cabotage Jones Act and the prohibition Jones Law, this law was not named after Wesley Jones, but U.S. Rep. William Atkinson Jones of Virginia.

Some confuse the Jones-Shafroth Act with the cabotage Jones Act, but thankfully such misinformation is not common.11

Jones-Shafroth wasn’t the only “Jones Act” to apply to U.S. territories, though. The year before, in 1916, Congress approved another Jones Law, this one regarding the Philippines. It aimed to give the Philippines greater political autonomy and eventual independence.12 The islands did receive the latter — 30 years later. 

Then there’s the Jones-Costigan Act. Enacted in 1934 amid other New Deal legislation, it regulated sugar production and imports.13 You wouldn’t think sugar policy and maritime legislation could be easily confused, but some have mixed up this law with the cabotage Jones Act.14 

Last, and probably least confusing, is the Bankhead-Jones Act. Instead of dealing with maritime matters, it deals with the opposite: land policy. Enacted in 1935, it provided federal funding to land-grant universities in the midst of the Great Depression.15 Just two years later, a similar law, the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, created a loan program for tenant farmers to purchase land.16

So, in summary, the eight “Jones Acts” are the cabotage Jones Act, the seafarer’s rights Jones Act, the Prohibition Jones Law, the Puerto Rico citizenship Jones Act, the Philippines government reform Jones Law, the sugar-related Jones-Costigan Act, the land-grant universities Bankhead-Jones Act and the land reform Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act.

Next time you end up in a conversation about “the Jones Act,” be sure to first find out which one you are discussing.

  1. Quantifying the cost of the Jones Act to Hawaii,” Grassroot Institute of Hawaii and John Dunham & Associates, July 2020, p. 3.
  2. John Frittelli, “Shipping Under the Jones Act: Legislative and Regulatory Background,” Congressional Research Service, Nov. 21, 2019, p. 1.
  3. Wesley L. Jones, “The Merchant Marine Act of 1920,” Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science in the City of New York, Vol. 9, No. 2, American Foreign Trade Relation, February 1921.
  4. Capt. Max Hardberger, “The Jones Act: The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 in the 21st Century,” Workboat, Sept. 10, 2019.
  5. See: Teresa Carey, “The Jones Act, explained (and what waiving it means for Puerto Rico),” PBS, Sept. 29, 2017.
  6. Maritime Worker Injuries – The Basics,” Nolo, 2021. Regarding a current related case, see “Fifth Circuit Turns to SCOTUS for New Definition of ‘Seaman,'” Mathew Guy, Grant Leger, Adams and Reese LLP, May 24, 2021.
  7. Max Greenwood, “AFL-CIO says repealing Jones Act would cost jobs,” The Hill, Oct. 13, 2017. Samuel is not the only person to have made this error. For example, see: “Century-Old Jones Act Continues to Protect Maritime Workers,” Morrow & Sheppard LLP, Dec. 3, 2018.
  8. Prohibition Laws and Repeal Laws in the U.S.,” Alcohol Problems and Solutions, 2021.
  9. George Wickersham, “The Constitution and Prohibition Enforcement,” Second Lecture on the Cutler Foundation, The College of William & Mary Law School, July 1929, pg. 35.
  10. Jones Act,” Library of Congress, Hispanic Division, accessed April 10, 2021.
  11. See, for example: “Revoke the U.S. Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (also known as the Jones-Shafroth Act), for Puerto Rico:” Change.org petition, 2015.
  12. Jones Law (Philippines),” Wikipedia, accessed April 10, 2021.
  13. The Secretary of State to the Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Bingham),” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, May 11, 1936.
  14. John Hazard, A Competitive U.S. Maritime Policy,” Transportation Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter 1982, p. 50.
  15. Bankhead–Jones Act of 1935,” Wikipedia, accessed April 10, 2021. See also: “Land Grant & Sea Grant: The Bankhead-Jones Act of 1935,” University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, 2021.
  16. Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act (1937),” The Living New Deal, accessed April 10, 2021.

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